Simple Chess

by admin on June 27, 2018

Last night at the Tuesday Night Marathon I played a thrilling draw against Greg Sarafian, a high class-A player. As you’ll see, this was a game where all three results were possible. In the immediate aftermath I was very relieved because I felt I had escaped from very serious trouble. But with a calmer look this morning I can see that I had him in trouble before that.

Here is the crucial position:

Position after 29. Kh1. Black to move.

FEN: r6k/pbq4p/1p6/3pR2Q/3P4/3Bp2P/PP3r2/4R2K b – – 0 29

In this position Black’s e3-pawn is obviously a goner, and one question is how to extract the most value from it. After White plays Rxe3, he will potentially have very serious threats involving Re7 or Re8 — but of course, he has to be careful because of Black’s own mating threats on h2. It’s a very tense position where both kings are in danger of being mated the same way!

Here I had 17 minutes left, and I spent 12 of those precious minutes on this position. I think that I made two errors in my thinking process:

  1. I was sure that there must be some brilliant way to win, maybe involving … Qc1+ or maybe involving a queen sac on e5 or maybe involving liberating my queen bishop somehow. I spent far too many of my 12 minutes looking at fantasy variations that weren’t realistic.
  2. Because I was so busy trying to find brilliant wins, I didn’t stop and ask myself what was White’s main threat in this position. In particular, mistake (2a) was thinking that White’s rook on e5 is effectively pinned because of the mate threat on h2. That’s true unless the rook gives check. If White is allowed to play Re8+, then his counterattack can get started.

For this reason, Black’s first move has to be either 29. … R8f8 or 29. … Rg8. I prefer the latter move because it places White’s king in stalemate (or a mating net). After 29. … Rg8 30. R1xe3, Black simply plays 30. … Rxb2, winning a pawn, and asks White, “What are you going to do?” The problem for White is that his rook on e5 is really, truly pinned now, because it can’t move with check, and with his rook stuck on that square he can’t really get any kind of counterattack started. The best I can see for him is to bail out to a losing endgame with 31. Qxh7+ Qxh7 32. Bxh7 Kxh7 33. Re7+ Rg7 34. Rxg7+ Kxg7 35. Re7+ Kf6 36. Rxb7 Rxa2.

In my mind I’m hearing Jesse Kraai’s favorite words: “Simple chess.” The hardest thing to do is play simple moves in complicated positions. Black doesn’t have to do anything heroic to win here. He just has to stop the threat and take the unprotected pawn. Simple chess!

The move I  played instead was 29. … e2? This was a desperate, “I’m down to 5 minutes and I’ve got to play something” move. I was hoping for 30. Rxe2 Rxe2 31. Rxe2 Qc1+, when Black has at least a draw by perpetual check with 32. Kh2 Qf4+. But White has lots of other options to play Qxe2 or Bxe2, so my move didn’t really accomplish anything.

However, White surprised me by finding another way to draw:

30. Re8+!? … As pointed out before, the pinned rook isn’t really pinned! At this point I started wondering, “Oh no, does he have a checkmate?” But I couldn’t see one, so I played 30. … Rxe8 31. Qxe8+ Kg7 32. Rg1+ Kf6.

Position after 32. … Kf6. White to move.

FEN: 4Q3/pbq4p/1p3k2/3p4/3P4/3B3P/PP2pr2/6RK w – – 0 33

Amazingly, Black does seem to be surviving. Thanks to the threat of mate on h2 and the ongoing threat of promoting the e-pawn, White cannot get too frisky. Nevertheless, I think Sarafian sold himself and his position short here. He went for the immediate draw by repetition with 33. Qf8+ Qf7 34. Qd6+ Qe6 35. Qf8+ ½-½, but as you can imagine I was quite happy to escape with a draw in this position.

White should have played 34. Qh6+ Ke7 35. Qe3+ (of course, 35. Rg7?? loses to 35. … e1Q+) Kd7 36. Be2. The position is still quite unclear, but I think that White’s king is now somewhat safer than Black’s, which is stuck in the middle of a wide-open chess board. Possibly the computer will say that the position is still equal (I haven’t checked yet), but in such a position there are many more practical chances for Black to go wrong. When you add to this the fact that I had only 5 minutes left in a sudden-death time control, while my opponent had 30 minutes left, there’s no question that White should have played on.

Although I don’t want to use this as an excuse, I arrived at the game 40 minutes late due to losing track of the time earlier in the afternoon. Unfortunately, city traffic and subway schedules do not allow you to catch up when you are in this kind of “time trouble.”

When I got to the Mechanics Institute, I was determined to not let the time deficit rattle me and for the most part it didn’t. However, in the critical position on move 29, I wonder if I might have been able to think calmly and play “simple chess” if I had 57 minutes on my clock (or even 37) rather than 17.

Another good lesson: It’s especially important to play simple chess in time trouble, when you are more apt to overlook things.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Larry Smith June 28, 2018 at 6:43 am

Note that after 29 … Rg8 30 R1xe3 the move 30 … Qg7 looks killing, threatening mate on both g2 and g1. White can’t go into the ending as in the 30 … Rxb2 line, since 31 Qxh7+ Qxh7 32 Bxh7 Kxh7 33 Re7+ Rg7 34 Rxg7+ Kxg7 35 Re7+ Rf7!

However, White has 31 Rg5! due to … Qxg5?? 32 Qxh7# But I think Black can play 31 … Rf1+! deflecting the bishop! But all this seems to do is to go into an ending that is not as good as the one for Black after your 30 … Rxb2. And so the move 30 … Qg7 should probably just remain a footnote, though an interesting one.


admin June 28, 2018 at 10:10 am

Hi Larry, I’m glad you mentioned this! It reinforces what I think is my main point here about why I went wrong. I saw exactly the line you mention, 30. … Qg7 31. Rg5! Rf1+ and didn’t see any advantage there. And that made me discard 29. … Rg8 entirely, which was the wrong decision.

My mistake was in relying only on *calculation* rather than on *reflection*. To understand this position, you can’t just do the “if-that-then-that” type of analysis. You have to reflect about the position and verbalize in words that the rook on e5 is pinned unless it can move with check. Once you do that, you’ve got the key to the position.

Early in the game it’s easy for me to think conceptually. But what this game shows is that in a very sharp position, and especially in a sharp position with time trouble, I default back to the “if-that-then-that” mode. It doesn’t occur to me to look at the sharp position through the lens of “simple chess.” My guess is that this is a common problem with many chess players.


Mike Splane June 29, 2018 at 2:24 am

Wondering if 29 … Rg8 30. R1e3 can be met with 30 …. Ba6 !! 31. Ba6 Qc2 when it looks like Black could be winning.

I only see four ways to stop mate on h2
32. Rg5 Rh2+ 33. Kg1 Qf2 #
32. Qe2 Re2 33. Re2 Qd1+ 34. Re1 Qf3+
32. Be2 Qc1+ 33. Bd1 Qd1+ 34. Re1 Rf1+ 35. Kh2 Re1
32. Re2 Qd1+ 33. Re1 Qd4 threatens 34. Rh2+ and 35… Qf2+ or Black can take the perpetual with 33 … Rf1+ 34 Rf2+


Larry Smith June 29, 2018 at 6:44 am

Mike, your 30 … Ba6!! is an astonishing conception! Interesting that in both of our suggested lines the idea involved deflecting the White Bd3.

My reaction to 30 … Ba6 was 31 Qh4, hitting the Rf2 and eyeing f6. If 31 Qh4 Rxb2 then 32 Bxa6 looks safe, since … Qc2 allows 33 Qf6+ and mate.

Maybe 30 … Ba6 31 Qh4 Rfg2 32 Qf6+ Qg7! so that if 33 Qxg7+ R2xg7 and the Ba6 is untouchable. Maybe all White has here is 34 h4, and feel lucky to be able to meet an eventual … Bc8+ with Bf5.


Juande June 30, 2018 at 6:14 pm

30…Ba6 is an amazing move!
Even more direct is 31. Ba6 Qc1+ followed by Qf4.
Maybe, as Larry mentioned, 31.Qh4 is necessary for White. But after 31…Qf7 32.Re7 Rf1+ can be a draw by repetition.
Larry’s line is also a draw after 30 … Ba6 31.Qh4 Rfg2 32.Qf6+ Qg7 33.Re7!! Rg1+
Very nice!


Larry Smith July 1, 2018 at 11:25 am

Congrats, 33 Re7!! is a great move I totally overlooked.

Isn’t it inspiring that such relatively normal and placid positions always seem to have some hidden gems lurking?


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